Friday, February 13, 2015

Sarnia's Boys' Brigade Hall and Armoury

Thomas Nisbet with eight members of his
Boys' Brigade company
Sometimes one man's vision for a single organization can have positive implications for the rest of the community. This was definitely the case when T.W. Nisbet embarked on an ambitious project to build a hall for the Boys' Brigade.

Thomas Nisbet with his
wife, prominent Sarnian
Charlotte Vidal Nisbet.
The Boys' Brigade was conceived by Sir William Alexander Smith in Glasgow in 1883. The organization's goal was "the advancement of Christ's kingdom among boys, and the promotion of habits of obedience, reverence, discipline, self-respect..." [extracted from "Company Card of 1st and 2nd Sarnia Companies, 1900 - 1901, The Boys' Brigade in Canada," page 1] Originally a British movement, the Boys' Brigade quickly swept across the globe throughout the British Empire.

Shortly after Smith established the organization, Bank of Commerce manager Thomas W. Nisbet brought the program to Sarnia with the first company of the Boys' Brigade in Ontario. He quickly took on an ambitious project to build a hall. Organized recreation was not very prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century, and Nisbet worked hard against negative public opinion to fund the building's construction (which had an estimated price tag of more than $10,000!) When he secured the support of a wealthy backer, Nisbet was able to hire H.G. Philips of Sarnia to oversee the design and construction. By June 3, 1894 a dedication service was taking place to acknowledge the opening of the new building. The Sarnia Observer published an extensive article on Nisbet's achievement after the dedication service:

"In a building such as this which, thanks to T.W. Nisbet's energy, liberality and perseverance, Sarnia now possesses, athletic exercises, swimming, diving and all the various forms of physical training can be carried on pleasurably and profitably throughout the entire year.

The Boys' Brigade Hall, or Armoury
"The new hall, which is situated on the west side of Christina Street, a little north of George, is a two story red brick, with stone trimmings, fronting 61 feet on Christina Street, and running 119 feet back to the lane... The main entrance door is trimmed all round with stone, with the monogram of the Boys' Brigade on the key stone... The drill room is 57X90 feet, with a hanging gallery running completely round the apartment, fitted up for running track, and with seating room for audience. The drill room is fitted with trapeze, horizontal and parallel bars, travelling rings, ladders and all the appliances and fittings of a complete gymnasium..." (8 June, 1884, page 4)

After the construction Nisbet assumed financial responsibility for the building's ongoing costs, which were funded in part by the sale of season tickets to Sarnians ($6.00 for a man and $3.00 for a woman). Nisbet's grand vision produced not only a building for the Boys' Brigade, but also an important social hub for the community that provided new and exciting athletic opportunities to all Sarnians.

The gymnasium of the Boys' Brigade Hall

Thomas Nisbet in the Boys' Brigade hall with a group of young women
who are taking advantage of the well-equipped facility.
Back row, L to R: Maizie Gurd, Mary Mackenzie, Charlotte Vidal Nisbet,
Thomas W. Nisbet, Francis Flintoft, Francis Johnston (?)
Middle row, L to R: Edith Nisbet, Grace Mackenzie (?)
Bottom row, L to R: Alice Clark, Nellie Mackenzie

Over time the building would become known to local residents as the Armoury. It took on much wider functions than just an area for the Boys' Brigade when it was selected to house Sarnia's militia. The building was even converted to a theatre before it was torn down in 1962 to make way for Sarnia's new City Hall.


Here are some of the Boys' Brigade Company Rules, extracted from "Company Card of 1st and 2nd Sarnia Companies, 1900 - 1901, The Boys' Brigade in Canada," pages 3-4:

1. Members must at all times set a good example to their comrades and other boys.
2. Members must take the greatest possible care of all accoutrements entrusted to them.
3. Members must come on parade in uniform, sharp to the minute, looking smart and clean.
4. Members must give prompt and cheerful obedience to all the orders of their officers and non-commissioned officers.
5. Members must always salute their officers when they meet or go up to address them when in uniform.

Download the Company Card of 1st and 2rd Sarnia Companies, 1900 - 1901 document in full (which has interesting descriptions of the company's activities and rules and contains many great pictures).

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